A MAN ONCE SAID to me, "There is a great chasm separating the Oriental and the Occidental mind. For example, the Occidental might say, `How can I make the most money, doing the least amount of work?' Whereas the Oriental would say, `Money does not matter. Only the work matters.' "
Artist Allan West, an American, has discovered a way to "bridge" the chasm of divergent ideology, allowing the Oriental and Occidental to touch and find commonality. His "bridge," "West Meets East: Folding Screens and Paintings by Allan West," is on display at Brigham Young University's Museum of Art.Born in Washington, D.C., in 1962, West had already decided to become an artist by age 8. At 18 he began his studies at the Corcoran School of Art, and at 19 he entered Carnegie-Mellon University, receiving his bachelor of fine arts in 1987.
While studying art under Sam Gilliam at Carnegie-Mellon, West became more and more dissatisfied with the thick, buttery consistency of oil paint. He craved a more fluid pigment in order to portray the vital energies of nature - a subject that possessed him. Over time, West developed a method of mixing ground minerals, derived from such gemstones as lapis lazuli, jade, agate and jasper, with deer hide glue to make paint more to his liking. When he discovered that he had unwittingly been using a variation of the traditional Japanese Nihonga painting techniques, he decided to formally study in Japan.
It took West eight years to fulfill this dream.
In 1989, West entered Tokyo University as a research fellow, and in 1990 he was admitted into graduate school, studying under the Nihonga master Kayama Matazoh.
While at the university, West began experimenting with gold, silver and copper leaf, a method that came to Japan from China more than a thousand years ago. The technique has been mastered by so few it has come to be considered a dying art. "Using a pillow of deerskin and a bamboo knife," West says, "I cut the leaf and then adhere it to the `washi' (handmade mulberry paper) with a deerskin glue sizing." The result is both dazzling and serene; his paintings convey a feeling of peace or happiness in spite of the visual turbulence they sometimes display.
With further experimentation, West "invented a method where one can bring out a rainbow of colors by chemically affecting the impurity found in less than top-grade gold. This is done using sulfurous oxide gas, which is so dangerous I use a full head mask and modified diving apparatus for breathing fresh air." The harmful gas is a byproduct of his painting chemicals into a porous paper for transference of the metals. All this must be carefully monitored - chemical, proximity, heat and humidity - and adjusted in the studio for color control.
Trees, with their carefully delineated leaves and branches, are a major motif in West's works. His painting "Grove" (gold leaf and mineral pigments on washi, 1992) doesn't look like a grove at all but conveys the sensation of being inside one.
As a high school student, West had trees in his bedroom that reached to the ceiling. He also had 20 different types of plants. His wall was painted red with patterns of green leaves. He even had a parrot flying loose in the room. His father called the place "Allan's Jungle."
This love of beauty and awareness of the energy of life is reflected in many of West's paintings.
One of his more vivid pieces, "Akanuma" (pigment on canvas), is named for the town where West went to request his wife's hand in marriage, following traditional Japanese custom. West uses images from his future in-laws' garden to show the excitement and love he felt on that occasion.
Another painting, "Koibumi," meaning "love letters" (pigment on canvas), is filled with Japanese characters showing jumbled words and incomplete phrases of unfinished love letters. Red, pink, brown, green and yellow characters fill the canvas with unspoken, intended meaning.
West sometimes paints on folding screens in order to surmount the two-dimensional restriction of painting. "I don't make the screen itself," he says. "The craft requires at least 10 years apprenticeship; those are 10 years I'd rather spend in perfecting my art."
"On some of his paintings, West uses a brush that is 6 feet long and more than 6 inches in diameter," says Paul L. Anderson, head of exhibition development for the BYU Museum of Art. "West says maneuvering the brush is almost like dancing with a partner."
"I was told by the person that sold me the brush," says West, "that it took 30 horse tails to choose enough 3-foot hairs to make the brush."
The brush itself is quite heavy. When saturated with paint it becomes ponderous. West keeps the paintings horizontal to prevent running and waste of the expensive mineral paint. "I have devised a system of suspended bridges that I can move in order to work on the paintings without stepping on them."
Despite the Japanese elements of his work, West insists the "American" qualities are immediately recognizable to the Japanese. (West has lived in Japan now for 12 years and has exhibited there widely.) His colors, for example, come from a palette "too gaudy" for the canons of that nation's landscape art. Each of his works evolves from both accident and control. Sometimes West combines his free-hand "marks" with carefully executed stencils or he overlays his grounds of flowing color with neatly gridded surface elements. His overall patterning, without regard for horizon line or framing edge, owes as much to Western modernism as to the schools of Momoyama or Edo and their various approaches to abstraction.
Certainly West's desire for personal expression sets him apart from traditional Eastern painters, with their dispassionate self-effacement. But the "bridge" remains, and the imagery that results from the influence of two cultures is appealing on many levels and cannot be dismissed.
"West Meets East"
Folding screens and paintings by Allan West runs through Aug.
North Campus Drive on B.Y.U. campus.
9 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday through Saturday.